In Ancient Rome, the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse & chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, plus displays featuring trained animals, jugglers, & acrobats. The circus of Rome perhaps was influenced by the Greeks, with chariot racing & exhibitions of animals as traditional attractions. The Roman circus consisted of tiers of seats, lower seats & boxes were reserved for persons of rank; however, the circus was the only public spectacle at which men & women were not separated. After the fall of Rome, itinerant performers, animal trainers & showmen traveled between towns throughout Europe, performing at local fairs.
In 1768, London, Philip Astley (1742-1814) established a riding academy & open-air equestrian show, fencing a 42 foot riding ring & covering the grandstand area with a wooden structure. Astley’s exhibition included trick riding, acrobatics, a strongman, & a clown who performed a routine on the slack rope to provide a comedic disruptive element to the seriousness of the trick riding. When Astley added tumblers, tightrope-walkers, jugglers, & performing dogs to fill time between his own demonstrations, he created a what many call a modern circus.
Marcellus Laroon's (1653–1702) Cries of London The Famous Dutch Woman
In 1724 Philadelphia, a female dancer performed on a rope holding baskets with iron chains on her feet, while "wheeling a wheelbarrow, and spinning with swords."
In 18th-century early America, just as in Rome, colonials enjoyed bear-baiting, cockfighting, bull-baiting, itinerant performers, animal trainers, & masterful riders, & even some clowns which had been traveling up and down the Atlantic coast since the 1720s, appearing outside local taverns & in public gardens.
Colonials also enjoyed the presentation of exotic animals. A lion was exhibited as early as 1720, the first live African lion to be exhibited in the British American colonies was in Boston. An advertisment in the Boston Gazette on July 3, 1721, announced that "at the South End of Boston at the house of Mrs. Adams is to be seen The Lyon, where on a Sign is writ the words The Lion King of Beasts is to be seen here. He is not only the Largest and most Noble, but the Tamest and most Beautiful Creature of his Kind, that has been seen, he grows daily, and is the wonder of all who see him. Constant attendance is given to all Persons who desire to satisfy themselves with the sight of him." Apparently the lion was brought to Boston, when he was just a cub. For a while, Sea Captain Arthur Savage had "The Lyon of Barbary" on display at his Brattle Street home, where it was kept "under guard by the captian's Negros."
Marcus De Bye (Dutch artist, 1612-1670) 1660 (Petrus Schenk Edition)
In 1733, the following account from Boston of a captured polar bear appeared in the The Pennsylvania Gazette on March 8, 1733. "For the Entertainment of our Readers, we shall give the Publick the following Account of the Greenland Bear , as reported by Captain Atkins, who has lately brought one to this Place. Capt. Atkins went a Whaling last Summer, with a Sloop, in Davis's Streights, on the Western Coasts of Greenland...in the Month of June last, he descry'd on one, a Large White Greenland Bear , with a Cub sucking Her: The Cup suppos'd to be then about Three Months old. The Captain hoisted out his Boat, and with five Hands more, arm'd, rowed with a Design to shoot her, and if possible catch the young One. As soon as the Bear saw the Boat, she made towards it with the utmost Rage and Fierceness, roaring out in the most hideous Manner, plunging into the Seas, and swimming with open Mouth to seize and devour them; her Cub hastening after, and roaring also. Three times they shot and hit her, which she nothing minded: But a fourth Shot pierc'd in to her Head, and kill'd her at once. Upon this the Cub made up to her, got upon her and with great Noise and Fury fought them in their Attempts to take him.. However, throwing Ropes with Nooses at him, they at length entangled him, drag'd him to the Sloop; and hoisting him up with Tackles, keeping at a Distance from him, lower'd him into the Hold, and brought him home. They also hoisted in the old One, which they skinn'd and tried: Her Skin is twelve Foot in length, and her Fat made two Barrels of Oil. The young One quickly tore in pieces the first Cage they made; and tho' but nine Months old, is grown four foot high, and five or six in Length. He is naturally as white as Snow, tho' now somewhat sullied, by the Dirt of the Cage. He is very fierce, and roars: and is to be seen at the south Side of Clark's Wharff, at the North end of Boston. These Greenland Bears are all white. They generally keep near the Edges of the Cakes of Ice on the Greenland Seas, to catch Seils, which they chiefly live on. They will swim and dive like Fishes: When they see a Flock of Fowls on the Water, they will dive down at a proper Distance, and when they come under them, will suddenly rise up and catch them: And they are so outagious and fierce, they are afraid of nothing. They never show the least Fear of Men, nor of their Weapons. Firing at them does but whet their Rage; and they are for falling on and devouring every living Thing they meet with. This is the first of the Kind that ever was brought into this Country."
In 1752 New York's Spring Garden offered nightly a "POSTURE MASTER, who transforms his Body into various Postures, in a surprising and wonderful Manner: with many Curious Dancings and Tumblings..He also performs The Flight of Hand...to the Music of a Dulcemer."
Marcellus Laroon's (1653–1702) Cries of London Clark the English Posture Master
In 1753, one pleasure garden announced truly extraordinary entertainment for their patrons. New Yorker Adam Vandenberg employed a wire walker, Anthony Dugee, to perform in a "new House built for the Purpose" in his Mead Garden. Shows occured in Vandenberg's open structure "weather permitting," and he charged four shillings for pit seating and two shillings for the gallery. Vandenberg's wire walker advertised that he had performed for the King of Great Britain. He walked forward and backward on a swinging rope, balancing first a pipe and then a straw on his nose. He also juggled four balls at once and balanced a twirlling plate on the point of a sword. Adding to the curiosity, an Indian and a young black boy assisted. The most amazing part of the act was not the juggling wirewalker, but his wife. The wirewalker's helpmeet, billed as "the Female Sampson," laid extended between two chairs bearing a 300 pound anvil on her chest while two men struck at it with sledge hammers. Still precariously stretched between the chairs, the wife then had six men stand on her chest. After this ordeal, the wife left the chairs and lifted the 300 pound anvil by her hair. To climax her portion of the show, she planted a 700 pound stone on her chest and then heaved it 6 feet away from her. Amazing circus performers continued to appear at commercial pleasure gardens throughout the colonies.
1792 North America The Buffallo. Massachusetts Magazine
New York City had a parade of curious animals during the 1750s. In 1751, there was advertised to be seen at the house of Mr. Edward Willett, at Whitehall, a creature called a Japanese, of about two feet high, his body resembling a human body in all parts except the feet and tail: price, one shilling; children, ninepence. In 1751, the town was invited to see, at the house of John Bannin, next door to Mr. Peter Brewer's, near the Dutch church, "a curious live porcupine of various colors; a creature armed with darts, which resemble writing pens though of different colour, and which he shoots at any adversary with ease when angry or attacked, though otherwise of great good humour and gentleness." In 1755, Captain Seymour arrived in New-York in the ship Fame in 8 weeks from Cadiz. He brought with him a young lioness, which he took on board at Gibraltar. He also brought from the African coast two ostriches, "fowls of that country," but they died on the voyage. In 1754, a living alligator, full 4 feet long, was shown for sixpence. In December, 1759, at the sign of the Ship-a-Masting, at the upper end of Moravian street, near the back of Spring Garden, there was advertised to be seen "a wild animal lately brought from the Mississippi, called a Buffalo." Occasionally young elks were on exhibition.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (French naturalist, 1707-1788) Porcupine
The 1770s saw several traveling horsemanship masters entertaining at local taverns, gardens, & public spaces. Jacob Sharpe entertained audiences in Boston, Essex, & Salem, Massachusetts with his daring equestrian performances. An Englishman named Faulks rode on several horses at once in Philadelphia & New York City. When Faulks was finished with his tricks on multiple steeds, he would vault over one of the horses while astride one galloping at full speed. Jacob Bates also performed in those towns in 1772-3. He claimed to introduce colonials to Astley's "Burlesque on horsemanship, orThe Taylor riding to Brentford" skit. Bates would finally settle in Philadelphia to establish a riding school.
In 1785, the staid Selectmen of Boston allowed an acrobatic equestrian to set up his show "in a proper enclosure" near the Musick-house Garden on the Commons. Performer Thomas Pool announced that he would mount "a single horse in full speed, with his right foot in the near stirrup, and his left leg extended at a considerable distance from the horse...then two horses in full speed, with a foot in the stirrup of each saddle, and in that position (leap a bar to mount) a single horse in full speed and (fire) a pistol. At the conclusion of the performances...three horses...will lay themselves down as if dead. One will groan apparently through extreme sickness and pain, afterwards rise and make his manners to the Ladies and Gentlemen. Another, having laid down for a considerable time, will rise and set up like a Lady's lap-dog...between the different parts...a Clown to amuse the spectators...and an exhibition of brilliant Fire Works." Pool traveled to Boston from Philadelphia, where he had performed similar feats of daring for audiences there. He would then go on to Baltimore, New York City, & Georgia, with his daredevil act.
Traveling performers trouped from town to town and garden to garden in the summers. Baltimore's Chatsworth or Grey's Gardens offered an "afternoon's amusement" in 1792. "The New Company of Tight Rope Dancers, Tumblers, &c, just arrived from Phildadelphia, will exhibit in Chatsworth Gardens...a five o'clock precisely...Tickets, one quarter of a dollar each."
The country’s first elephant, toured inns & garden taverns in 1796. An April, 1796, publication, Greenleaf’s New York, mentions an elephant journeying to New York aboard the ship America. A few days later an elephant was exhibited around Beaver Street & Broadway, according to an advertisement in New York newspaper The Argus, April 23, 1796. This area was the location of the Bull’s Head Tavern, a place frequented by ships’ captains, drovers, and a variety of businessmen. The elephant arrived aboard the America which set sail from Calcutta for New York on December 3, 1795. The first references to the elephant "Old Bet" start in 1804, in Boston as part of a menagerie. In 1808, while residing in Somers, New York, Hachaliah Bailey purchased the menagerie elephant for $1,000 and named it "Old Bet." On July 24, 1816, Old Bet was killed while on tour near Alfred, Maine by a farmer who shot her, and was later convicted of the crime. The farmer thought it was sinful for people to pay to see an animal.
Charles Knight after the drawing by Henry William Bunbury, published in London by W. Dickinson 1785.
Veteran circus rider Scotsman John Bill Ricketts opened a riding academy in October of 1782, at the corner of 12th & Market Streets in Philadelphia, announcing in Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser on in October of 1792, that "Mr Ricketts, lately from London purposed instructing Ladies and Gentlemen in the elegant accomplishment of riding. The Circus will be opened Thurs Day the 25 instant...Gentlemen's hours from 8 to 11 o'clock, and the ladied from 11 to 2 o'clock."
Traveling bands of entertainers trouped from town to town and garden to garden in the summers. Baltimore's Chatsworth or Grey's Gardens offered an "afternoon's amusement" in 1792. "The New Company of Tight Rope Dancers, Tumblers, &c, just arrived from Phildadelphia, will exhibit in Chatsworth Gardens...a five o'clock precisely...Tickets, one quarter of a dollar each."
On April 3, 1793 he gave his first American circus performance. Ricketts’ circus featured acrobats, trick riding & a clown named Mr. McDonald. President George Washington, visited Ricketts’ circus & either sold or donated Jack, the white steed he had ridden during the Revolutionary War, to the Scotsman. Ricketts traveled from New York City south to Norfolk & Charleston offering his spectacular skits to new citizens of the fledgling nation.
The Pennsylvania Gazette of March 8, 1797, reported, "On Saturday the Merchants of this city gave a public dinner, at Ricketts's Circus , to GEORGE WASHINGTON, in testimony of their approbation of his conduct as President of the United States. - The company, among whom were all the Foreign Ministers, many of the Members of both houses of Congress, the Governor of the state, and all the principal Merchants of the city, met at Oellers's hotel, and marched in procession from thence to the place of entertainment. On their entering the Circus , Washington's March resounded through the place, and a curtain drew up, which presented to view a transparent full length painting of the late President, whom Fame is crowning with a Wreath of Laurel, taking leave, after delivering to her his valedictory address, of the Genius of America, who is represented by a Female Figure, holding the Cap of Liberty in her hand, with an Altar before her, inscribed PUBLIC GRATITUDE. In the painting are introduced several emblematic devices of the honours he had acquired by his public services, and a distant view of Mount Vernon, the seat of his retirement."
The same Philadelphia newpaper reported on February 27, 1799, "Friday last being the anniversary of the birth of Lieutenant General Washington, the 9th company of Philadelphia Artillery paraded at the arsenal, and at 12 o'clock fired a salute. Several other volunteer corps paraded through the city; and in the evening the City Dancing Assembly gave a splendid Ball at Ricketts's Circus."
In 1797, Ricketts opened another circus in New York, where he promoted Washington’s 28-year-old horse Jack as a sideshow exhibit. Ricketts & his band of entertainers traveled up & down the east coast from Canada to Charleston, finally settling in Annapolis & then Easton, Maryland. Ricketts’ Philadelphia circus amphitheatre was destroyed by fire in 1799, & he was lost at sea in 1801.
In the New York City newspaper The Minerva, & Mercantile Evening Advertiser on August 31, 1796, notice was given "To The Curious. A Beautiful AFRICAN Lion. To be seen everyday, except Sundays, ...in the Fields, next to the corner of Murray Street in Broadway, where the proprietor has provided a cage in which the Lion moves at large, and which exhibits him to the greatest advantage...The noble animal is between 3 and 4 feet high, and measures 8 feet from nostrils to tail; is of a beautiful dun color, between 6 and 7 years old and uncommonly strong built...He was caught in the woods of...Africa when a whelp and brought from thence to New York. He is as tame as any domesticated animal, whatever, and is really worth the contemplationo of the curious. Price of Admittance 2 shillings."
Continuing the circus tradition, in 1802, Joseph Delacroix engaged an acrobat and equestrian performer, James Robertson, to stage a small circus in his New York City public pleasure garden. Robertson demonstrated feats of aerial & ground tumbling plus trampoline tricks. He also performed comic skits with a clown plus an astounding act he named the "Antipodean Whirligig." During this act, Robertson attached fireworks to his body & feet and surrounded himself with additional fireworks. Robertson lit all the fireworks, stood on his head, & whirled around on a rotating stand that he claimed turned 250 times a minute. Later he set up a circus ring to perform "feats of Horsemanship...in the same stile as at Astley's in London."
By 1817, bears invaded a Boston public pleasure garden. A "Lapland White Bear" who did tricks and "walked with her arms folded" took up temporary residence at Washington Gardens near the Boston Commons, while visiting musicians presented "Concerts, Instrumental and Vocal" and "Fire-Works" exploded overhead. The gardens were not far from the place in Boston, where the first polar bear had been exhibited in 1733.
Apparently the circus was not an agreeable entertainment for all by the end of the 18th-century. In the 1797 novel The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster, a friend writes Eliza about attending a circus. “The circus is a place of fashionable resort of late, but not agreeable to me. I think it inconsistent with the delicacy of a lady, even to witness the indecorums, which are practiced there; especially, when the performers of equestrian feats are of our own sex. To see a woman depart so far from the female character, as to assume the masculine habit and attitudes; and appear entirely indifferent, even to the externals of modesty, is truly disgusting, and ought not to be countenanced by our attendance, much less by our approbation. But setting aside this circumstance, I cannot conceive it to be a pleasure to sit a whole evening, trembling with apprehension, lest the poor wight of a horseman, or juggler, or whatever he is to be called, should break his neck in contributing to our entertainment.”